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Are BJJ Professors Necessary?

Did Oswaldo Fadda's Teacher Luis França Learn Jiu-Jitsu from Conde Koma?

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Robert Drysdale

Special to GTR

September 1, 2018

 The initial inspiration for this article came after some mild flak I received after an interview I gave for a podcast in regards to the gClosed-Guardh documentary film about the origins of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil. During this interview I made a comment about it being my personal suspicion that Luis França, Oswaldo Faddafs teacher, was mostly self-taught given the lack of evidence available in regards to his apprenticeship under Mitsuyo Maeda the famed gConde Koma.h

The notion seemed to upset some people who, perhaps, felt I was being disrespectful to that lineage. In fact, much to the contrary, one of our goals is precisely to shed some light on the neglected and underknown history of Oswaldo Fadda and his important role in the development of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as an art. More to the point of the article however, it is my opinion that all practitioners are, at least to some extent if not mostly, self-taught.

This all might sound outlandish and egotistical, but perhaps by the end of this article you may come to agree with me if you donft already. The conclusion came to me from my own personal experience and, although it may not be the most popular of positions, I believe the core of it to be correct and its understanding to better help us understand our own technical progress as well as our social-milieu.

Martial-arts, like most athletic endeavors (and one could argue that more so than most), are highly mental, technical, physical and emotional. These factors have varying degrees of flexibility (depending on our endowments), according to the numerous environments we are exposed to during the course of our martial-arts journey (i.e. house-hold, peers, gym, tournaments, etc.) making the combination of all these factors the building blocks on which our performance and overall apprenticeship stands.              

It is a difficult task to explain in writing something that is so natural to our experiences, we may well be as unaware of its existence as a fish may be to the existence of water. Bridging this gap may, perhaps, help us better understand and further our progress. Technically speaking, most of our lessons in BJJ are not gcookie-cutterh exact replicas of what we have learned in class from our instructors or have seen elsewhere but, in fact, our movements on the mat are largely improvisations on the spot created from: a) past experiences; and b) observation. Where the latter takes a back-seat to the former.

As a guide to this point, perhaps we can think of some of our own personal lessons. As a parent, I often attempt to instruct my daughters to behave in a certain way, or to avoid certain behaviors. Some of it is heeded, but many of these lessons are ignored until they have actually experienced the results the hard way (i.e. gdonft run when the floor is slipperyh; gfinish your dinner or you donft get desserth; etc.). In a similar manner, our instructors simply telling us not to stick our necks or arms out there, or to do gX and Yh when opponent does gZ and Ch is not enough for the complete learning experience to take place. Lessons of failure and frustration are required in order for behavior to be assimilated and avoided in the future. And here lies the corner-stone of my point: the majority of our mat-behavior, is the training of the four elements I describe above combined with our failed experiences of the past. Hardship and failure become invisible yet ever present teachers.

These failures, followed by corrections and adaptations, followed by counters and so on, create an arms-race like environment that directly interact with our mental, emotional and physical capacities and are at the core of what we call technique. In this sense, our opponents, training partners and mat-time are our primary teachers. Additionally, the lessons that stem from success and failure on the mats are often invisible and so trivial to common-sense that no one would bother teaching them in class unless they wanted to risk ridicule. These lessons however are the overwhelming majority of our actions on the mats (i.e. when mounting, shifting your weight left, when your opponent bridges to the left). The apparent triviality of such actions should not be under-looked simply because they seem obvious. Their combined importance is exactly what we call good-grappling.

This is not to diminish the role of observation and what we learn from our instructors. Observation, whether from attending class, or watching videos, can often gift us the glight-bulbh moment that can open a series of doors that will allow you to pursue a new pathway. The primary goal of the instructor, in this technical sense, is to provide his or her students with a plethora of doors and allow the student to choose which ones suit his or her preferences. All in accord with his or her abilities, be that of a mental, emotional or physical nature, rather than imposing his or her technical preference on the student, a method I have seen fail repeatedly and invariably, at least within large and physically diverging groups.

Learning is largely a mystery to me. I have often wondered at why is it that when I show a gkata-gurumah in class some students grasp it almost immediately while others canft seem to grasp it at all. If the exact same data is presented, why is it that people differ so much in how they absorb that information? Even discounting athletic ability and experience, our acquiring of knowledge differs greatly from that of our peers.

This furthers my own belief in the inherited qualities of not only our bodies, but also of our minds. The teaching experience described above, correlates directly with my practice as a student. I was never taught the guillotine in any detail. I saw it once in a fight and it made enough sense for me to use it in practice when the opportunity presented itself and adapt it over time, through practice and error, to my own preferences. Furthermore, I have been taught ghip-throwsh my whole life yet I have always failed to execute them in practice and, to be honest, completely fail to even see the opportunity for their execution. Technical progress is essentially the accumulation of mistakes, followed by corrections. These can be made by your instructor but are more often than not made by ourselves, whether we realize this or not. Granting the instructor with full-responsibility over your apprenticeship, however commendable and honorable, would be incorrect.

Of course, this leaves us with the question of what the role of the BJJ Professor is. The case above, doesnft diminish or tarnish in the least the role of any coach. In fact, the role a coach has is a far more important one for our practice than he or she is ever credited with. The most important role a coach plays is not a technical one, which is not only endearing but in fact easy in comparison, but a social one.

In order for a student to be able to learn the necessary lessons (through practice and observation) it is fundamental that an environment is created for that practice, a social-platform from which the student can build upon. Every academy has its own culture and it is the coachfs job to create and maintain the desired culture (whether that is a competitive or recreational one), a far more daunting task than teaching a technique in class, particularly given the wide, varied and competitive crowds that are draw to martial-arts academies.     

This created culture, has not only the purpose of establishing a friendly and happy environment that warrants the student to come back, keeping in mind that attending a BJJ academy is not compulsory (many children notwithstanding) in the same way that work or going home are. In other words, if the student is there, it is because he chooses to be there and although the initial reason for his or her attendance may be technical (self-defense, competition, etc.) the reasons why they stay long-term are also of a social and personal nature (stress-release and endorphin filled work-out, creation of a new social-circle, etc.). But, more to the point of the topic of this article, the primary purpose of a coach, is to steer the gymfs culture cohesively in order to allow the lessons on the mat to be learned by the students.

It is the maintenance of this culture where the real work of the leader lies and, truth be told, his or her technical skillset takes a back-seat to the importance of this social-maintenance. The most daunting of tasks isnft showing a variety of techniques in a comprehensive and digestible manner, but rather managing egos, hierarchies, drama, gossip, petty competitiveness, love-triangles, rudeness, arrogance, narcissism and everything thing else that accompanies any adult gathering. In military terms, the job of a BJJ leader is to grun-a-tight-shiph, avoiding all of the negativity above, while maintaining a happy and friendly environment, running a business like a business (cut-throat and all, in case the coach and gym owner are the same person), teaching a good-quality class, working to make the group grow (where the cohesiveness becomes increasingly more difficult of a task) and whilst maintaining onefs moral-integrity. Far from an easy job, keeping in mind it is also highly competitive.

I have often observed, both in the MMA and BJJ worlds that the people who were often referred to as good coaches, werenft necessarily good technicians or particularly great at explaining the techniques either. But they always possessed a high degree of social-intelligence, a good psychologist if you will, that had little or nothing to do with martial-arts. More often than not, these qualities were in fact worthless for technical development but are crucial for the social-cohesion a leader seeks. They are: wits, ability to build alliances, sharp sense of humor, being a good sports-psychologist and, most importantly, being the social-alpha male. In some ways, at the cost of sounding overly Freudian, the role of the coach is to become a father-like figure to students.

This is corroborated by my observation that some of the best technicians I have ever met, were not considered good-coaches, not because they couldnft explain techniques in a comprehensible manner, but rather because they lacked the social skills I describe above.

It is easy to comprehend the importance of both these skills (the technical and the social) but this should also give us reason for a minimal level of skepticism as to what is quality teaching. A coach, carries the burden of possessing both these skill sets.

To get to the bottom of how we learn and evolve as practitioners and what the role of teaching is and to discover how we learn, requires a pragmatism and objectivity that is free of any concerns over any social-conventions and alliances, and what gought-to-beh should never prevail over gwhat-is.h Being a good psychologist in the sense above often takes prevalence over technical knowledge or skills, regardless of what one thinks of this, it is my view that this is the reality of our industry. And while the line between a good-psychologist and a con-artist or a cult-leader can be a thin one, I have met and had incredible coaches during my life whose positive roles impacted everyone around them positively. Ultimately, the purpose of a coach exceeds the technical realm and permeates the social. May this be an instructive one our students should emulate and the net effect a positive one.

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(c) 2018, Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.

More Commentary by Robert Drysdale:

Reflections on the Evolution of BJJ

Who Taught Oscar Gracie?

I was Skeptical

Selling Self-Defense

Rickson Gracie is Wrong

Rev. of book by João Alberto Barreto

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GTR Publications

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October 9, 2018

Craze Vol. 1: The Life and Times of Jiu-Jitsu, 1854-1904

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Choque 1, 3rd Edition 

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Choque 3, 1961-1999

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Choque 2, 1950-1960 

  

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Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, 1997-2008 (2018 rev. ed)

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Digital Editions are also available

GTR Archives 1997-2018

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